Greek-American Handbag Designer Touts "Masks for a Cause"

Handbag and mask designer and manufacturer Maria Argyropoulos Zarian. Photo courtesy of Maria Aryropoulos Zarian.

Greek-American designer Maria Argyropoulos Zarian spoke recently to Greek Reporter about making a difference with her company m.andonia as well as her new venture, “Masks for a Cause.”

“m.andonia was inspired by a 1950s placemat,” she explains at the outset. “I fell in love with the texture and the woven quality of the material itself and decided to make my first bag out of it. I received many compliments on it and so it started. While I was working at Disney in the design department I decided to start my business and began to moonlight after work.

“There would be tireless nights in my apartment in Los Feliz coming up with the designs for my new collections. I first started with vintage materials and started to create the designs which in turn became limited editions.”

Argyropoulos Zaryan continues, “While at Disney I knew I wanted to do something different. Knowing that I had the facility and capabilities at my fingertips along with my mother’s knowledge of the leather goods business that stemmed from her family’s history from their factory in Athens, I knew that this was going to be seamless.

Golden Fleece Designs, Inc. had been manufacturing for the yachting industry for decades while branching off to do government contracts and producing unique designs for movie studios. “The company was equipped for a broad scale of manufacturing, primarily in industrial goods,” she adds.

“During my lunch breaks at Disney, I would quickly drive over to the factory and oversee the production of the new collections,” she tells Greek Reporter. “I began receiving orders from department stores while working at my day job. Once I knew I was going to go full force with m.andonia I decided to leave Disney. This was a difficult decision. Some of my best days were at that Company.

“I’ll never forget getting a call while I was working at Disney, from a store owner who had recently placed a wholesale order,” the designer admits. “She had told me that Annette Bening had walked into the store and purchased my handbag. That was exciting. I was 26 years old at the time and to have a celebrity like Annette Bening purchase from the first collection was an amazing feeling.

“This year marks 21 years of my being a handbag designer and manufacturer. It is hard to believe, as it honestly feels like yesterday when this all began. I still design each collection as if it were my first — I enjoy the process,” she relates with satisfaction.

Argyropoulos Zaryan shared that m.andonia is unique because it “celebrates an era in our country’s history that is iconic. Our collection has a retro vintage vibe that showcases the flare of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Utilizing vintage materials was great at the time, which made each bag unique. This became a supply-and-demand issue as I could not offer the customers what they all wanted — the bags were limited collections,” she says.

“At that point, I realized that I could keep the vintage collections separate but needed to supply the need for more, and I began purchasing materials by the yard,” she says. “I would source unique textiles from Europe in order to make the collection come alive.

“We still continue to offer one-of-a-kind bags that people covet, which in turn allows me to make them super special, knowing that there is only one made. It is more of an artistic approach, as a single painting, but these are functional, one-of-a-kind pieces of art.”

“This year, I began ‘The Mid Century Men’s Collection,’ which really celebrates the men of the mid-century,” she said. “The amazing architects, designers, actors, comedians, engineers, doctors, and many more. This time in our country’s history was really special.

“From aerospace to fashion, this was truly an epic time. They were limitless in their approaches and to this day we are still utilizing their amazing discoveries. It was fun and exciting! The men’s collection is a nod to this awesome era and it is very specific and will always remain, as embodied in our one-of-a-kind messenger bags.” (You can see these creations online by clicking here.)

The Califormia designer also opened up about “Masks for a Cause,” another brainchild of hers, born from the COVID-19 pandemic. “While Los Angeles was on lockdown we were all glued to our televisions. I was watching New York Governor Cuomo and I heard his plea for U.S. manufacturers to step up to the plate and help.

“This struck a chord and I wanted to help immediately. I had thousands of yards of fabric at our factory in Burbank, California, that I knew were not going to be used any time soon due to this pandemic. Retail stores began canceling their orders, trade shows canceled their venues and I basically pivoted the business immediately and began ‘Masks for a Cause.'”

“Not only was it exciting to do something to help our country but it also allowed our employees to keep working and not lose their jobs,” she explains proudly. “This was important to me. As a company, we began producing and shipping within two days. When I started receiving phone calls from nurses with desperate undertones on the phone I knew that this was going to become bigger than I could possibly handle. I was at home with the boys doing distance learning and then I would head over to the factory and work hours on end.”

She continues, “I began to function on adrenaline to help as many frontliners as possible. Nurses would show up to pick up their masks and I could see how tattered and overused their N95 masks were. How was this possible? For hospitals and nursing facilities to not have enough supply of masks?

“We worked tirelessly, and on the weekends, to get as many masks made as possible. It has now been a little over eight weeks and I feel that we have made a difference in our community as well as statewide. My mission at this point is to donate to a facility in every state. So far, we have donated to 17 states and we continue to do so week by week,” the designer says.

Argyropoulos Zarian also discussed her Greek heritage and background with Greek Reporter. “My parents were born and raised in Athens. Their roots stem from Andros, Mykonos, and Constantinople. My father was working for NASA /JPL in La Canada, Flintridge, California, at the time as a system engineer. He had gone back to Greece to visit and there he met my mother, in Plaka. She continues to tell me stories of how they met and of her childhood at the footsteps of the Acropolis.”

“The family factory was also located in Plaka and as a child, I would be there for hours on end on my summer breaks in Greece,” she says. “During that time I did not realize that I would become a handbag designer. I do recall that I would sketch handbags to pass the time while I was at the factory. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be designing and manufacturing handbags. In fact, I wanted to become an environmental designer during the ’90s when I graduated from the university.”

She acknowledged that some positives have emerged from recent world events from all this worry and unrest. “The silver lining to this pandemic is so broad. We have come together globally as a human race, we have repaired mother earth, and have shifted our thoughts to be kinder. This is all we can do right at this moment and I believe it is a wake-up call for us to slow down, enjoy family, bond with the community and to make sure we look after one another,” she muses.

“I see this happening all around me and globally, it feels great. Did it really take this pandemic to make us all stop, change, and really think about one another? I look forward to the great outcomes that will surface once we are through these volatile times. Unique ideas will certainly come out of all this and we will prevail during this change while we grow stronger,” she adds.

Regarding her proudest moments over the years with m.andonia, the designer says, “I do have to say that I am very proud and very fortunate to be working with my parents this entire time. Not many people get to do this. It is a team effort and my mother, Antoinette, is the backbone of the company. I call her my ‘soft goods’ engineer.

“During these twenty years, we have been in over 700 retail stores nationwide including big department stores as well as a flagship store in Tokyo, Japan. The fact that I was able to do this at a young age in such a short period of time, and design an accessory that women liked has been truly gratifying.”

Argyropoulos Zaryan also spoke of her strong ties to other Greek-Americans here in the US. “The Greek community here in the States is very strong. Growing up in a tight Greek community in Northridge, California is what has influenced me to carry on Greek traditions,” she explains.

“The multitude of family events, church functions, folk dancing, and religion is all that has shaped me as well as many others,” she says. “Coming together through our Orthodox religion and continuing traditions is what keeps the Greek community going. We can’t lose this as we assimilate with other cultures, we need to stay true to our roots. Our churches contribute to our core, to who we are. They continue to keep our traditions as we navigate through this modern world,” she adds.

When asked for final thoughts about her company, she says “m.andonia is a brand that is not afraid to be unique. We have been using colors in a non-traditional way for the past 21 years and have a specific style to our collection.

The designer explains “Our ‘Kiss’ frame bag is the signature look that we have been doing for the last few decades. Our bags get to showcase individual personalities and represent something unique about the person. The women who carry an m.andonia handbag are confident, stylish and are not afraid to show their personality.”

To learn more about m.andonia, please check out the store’s official website, here.